Analysis of The Rite of Spring
“What nobody seems to have done before the Rite of Spring was to take dissonant, irregularly formed musical ‘objects’ of very brief extent and release their latent energy by firing them off at one another like so many like so many particles in an atomic accelerator “ (Walsh, Stephen p.44)
Stravinsky’s method of composition for Le Sacre was to arrange and layer small cells of music. Each “cell” is both a melodic and rhythmic essence of the folk melody from which it was derived. See the Analysis below above recreated from the Stephen Walsh Book (Walsh, Stephen p.44 ) These musical fragments often consist of as few as four notes but they are repeated and reoriented to create ostinati, or stacked to generate chords, or embellished to create melodic material. Le Sacre was originally thought to contain only one true folk tune: the high bassoon part which begins the introduction. Later investigation into more of Stravinsky's sketches in 1969 revealed complete folk melodies copied from published collections (Walsh,Stephen p.43) Although, after being thoroughly worked, reorganized and chopped up by Stravinsky very little of the actually tune remains intact save for a faint essence of their musical personality. According to Van Den Toorn another strong adhesive component in the work is the ubiquitous use of the octatonic scale and it’s derived chords. (Van Den Toorn, Pieter)
"Indeed, The Rite is one of the most thoroughly octatonic of Stravinsky's works..." (Van Den Toorn, Pieter p.123)Stravinsky not only employed the octatonic scale as others had before, he redifiend it's use and context completeley. By encorperating long steams of octatonic chords and seeding them with superimositions and chunks of diatonic material Stravinsky created a vocabulary all his own.
"... and to an astonishing degree, the vocabulary that informs this referential commitment remains intact: triads, dominant sevenths, and (0 2 3 5) tetrachords. The distinction rests primarily with the technique of superimposition. In The Rite , the (0, 3, 6, 9) symmetrically defined units no longer succeed one another, harmlessly, as they do in the operas of Rimsky or in the early Stravinsky passages cited above. These units are now superimposed—played simultaneously. And this is an invention from which startling implications accrue not only in pitch organization but, as a consequence, in rhythm and instrumental design as well. It radically alters the conditions of octatonic confinement, opens up a new dimension in octatonic thought that Stravinsky, beginning with Petrushka and The Rite , was to render peculiarly his own. (Van Den Toorn, Pieter p.124)
The octatonic scale is an eight note scale consisting of the pattern / H / W / H / W / H / W / H / W / The octatonic scale contributes to the atonal quality of the harmonies. But, it should be noted that Stravinsky was not limited to these sonorities and used many conventional chords in the Rite, although he did not use them in the customary way. (Walsh, Stephen p.44) That is to say they did not propel the harmonic motion as in a standard chord progression. Confronted with the same problem as his predicessors Stravinsky’s unique solution to the going nowhere feeling of atonal music was the development of the musical cell and his stunning use of rhythm.
Stravinsky layers each cell within a framework of rhythm. Ostinatos revolve continuously until their momentum is somehow resolved. Sometimes these repeating motives are quelled by the emergence of a diatonic melody, another hallmark of Stravinsky’s style. However, These oasis's of melody rapidly devolve back into tonal ambiguity
" Pierre Boulez once described The Rite as a piece in which a "vertical chromaticism" stood opposed to a "horizontal diatonicism." By this he meant that while the vertical alignment is often chromatic, the individual parts are in themselves often simple and diatonic."(Van den Toorn p.129)
Each pattern of stratified cells and rhythms emerges sometimes slowly and other times suddenly. Structures cycle, gathering steam, until they suddenly jump to a new parallel or they simply fall apart into quiet a sea of a new pulsing bass line. In the more aggressive movements the recitation of a motif often continues, building momentum, collecting thicker and thicker layers of melodic fragments like a snowball until it is shattered by a percussive explosion. These devises of rhythmic and motivic transition form the basis for the Rite of Spring’s cadential device. When harmonic ambiguity circumvents the listeners need for a resolution Stravinsky provides one with a change in either rhythm, density, or melody, or all three. The second movement of part two "The Augurs of Spring " is an example how layers build and then come to a close with a rhythmic cadence. Click on the excerpts below to have a closer look.
In closing it is important to remember that Stravinsky did not adhere to a particular method or theory. Perhaps the best thing about the Rite is it's freedom of imagination.
"I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du printemps. When I think of the other composers of that time who interest me—Berg, who is synthetic (in the best sense), Webern, who is analytic, and Schoenberg, who is both—how much more theoretical their music seems than Le Sacre; and these composers were supported by a great tradition, whereas very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du printemps. I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed." Igor Stravinsky (Stravinsky and Craft, p.147-48)
Pierre Boulez, Notes of an Apprenticeship , trans. Herbert Weinstock (New York: Knopf, 1968), p. 74.
Van den Toorn, Pieter C. Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft967nb647/
Walsh, Stephen. The Music of Igor Stravinsky. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” we solicited anecdotes and reminiscences from Local 802 musicians about what playing this awesome piece means to them. Here are their stories:
Bam! What Was That Sound?
by Ron Wasserman
When Music Could Cause Riots
by Tom Olcott
Always a Surprising Ride
by Joseph Alessi
A Journey Like No Other
by Stephen Williamson
Playing the “Rite” in Mexico
by Karen Fisher
Bam! What Was That Sound?
by Ron Wasserman
Part I: The Adoration of the Contractor
The Augurs of the Gig
Spring 2009: here I am, sitting on stage at Avery Fisher Hall, subbing with the great New York Philharmonic. Indeed a high honor. Without a doubt, one of the world’s finest orchestras. The stage is chock-full of instruments. I’m checking the score as I write this to verify my memory: Eight – count-em, eight – French horns, various drums, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, guiro, etc. etc. The Philharmonic has spared no expense and has hired extra strings, including me. Oh that Carl Schiebler; one of the best contractors in the business! I’m sitting WAAAY in the back, probably 12th double bass. What a sight. That puts me squeezed between the two sets of timpani. Oh Jeez, I hope I didn’t leave my earplugs in my instrument case, nope, here they are. Ach, dropped one. Got it. Whew! AACH! Dropped my rosin. How embarrassing.
These Philharmonic players are just so phenomenal, and they know this piece really well. I’ve only played it a couple of times since a disastrous outing in college, but now that I have a few decades of orchestral experience under my belt, how hard could it be?
Above, a sketch of Igor Stravinsky by Pablo Picasso, who designed the original costumes and sets of Stravinsky’s 1920 ballet “Pulcinella.” Picasso took the opportunity to make several sketches of the composer.
Procession of the Wisest Conductor:
The enigmatic Russian maestro Valery Gergiev strides to the podium. He lightly gestures a soft, magical downbeat. I feel like a little insignificant caboose back here as this giant freight train pulls out of the station.
It starts so really quietly and slowly. The bassoon solos in an almost uncomfortably high-sounding tessitura, but Judy LeClaire plays it so beautifully. How many wind entrances are there? There are 20 woodwind players? That is soooo cool. It’s hypnotizing the way Stravinsky draws you into his musical universe. The harmonic and rhythmic languages are almost primal.
Over at the New York City Ballet, where I am principal bassist, I have discovered that there are two widely separated categories of ballet music. Luckily, we don’t play much of Category One, which is some of the worst, mundane and forgettable stuff. Category Two contains pieces like “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” which are just about the best music of any kind ever written. No piece better illustrates this latter category than Stravinsky’s monumental “The Rite of Spring.” The members of the NYC Ballet Orchestra are Stravinsky specialists, but surprisingly we’ve never tackled “The Rite.” That’s another reason I feel fortunate to have this chance with the Philharmonic.
Ritual of the Two Rival Tubas
BAM! What was that sound? I didn’t know an orchestra could play that loud! What instrument was that? Say, does a trumpeter or a trombonist play the bass trumpet? Wait, stop listening; pay attention to your own part. No, I have to listen. It’s too fascinating and engrossing. Where am I? Oh yeah, on page eleventeen or something. F-flat? That’s just another name for a D-double-sharp, which by any other name sounds as sweet. Open fifths sound so good with a giant bass section like this. Gergiev is SOOO far away. I can barely see his stubble beard and his toothpick-sized baton. Wait, he’s not using an ACTUAL toothpick, is he?
The first time I played this piece was in college about 33 years ago, which means that I can say that I’ve been playing it for a third of its life. Back then I remember thinking several times, “Please, God, let me count out this passage correctly!” Trying to count the time changes in “The Rite” is where I, for one, discover religion. I’ve always prided myself on being an excellent reader, but in Stravinsky, no matter how well you think you know certain pieces, when you least expect it a passage will just up and bite you.
Being under-rehearsed is the story of my career. Was that an actual chord or a cluster? (We bassist/composers instinctively need to keep track of the harmony.) Say, how would you ever fit all these instruments into an orchestra pit anyway? Maybe keep the orchestra on stage and put the dancers into the pit? Are those old ladies at this 11 a.m. matinee actually enjoying this cacophony? Yes, they are smiling broadly. Bless them anyway; there’d be no classical music in this country without them.
Part II: The Exalted Sacrifice of the Uniform Bowings
Twenty-second respite here. Relax…breathe. Uh-oh, it’s starting up loud and fast again; get counting, Ron. Will that second bass clarinet player notice my wrong note? Doesn’t matter, he’s just a sub too. Please, God, let me count out this passage correctly. Was there a change of bowing from the first stand that got lost in transit before reaching me six desks in the back? Can’t possibly see (then) principal bass Eugene Levinson’s bow arm. Can’t see him at all. Whoops, I’m committed. Feels like I’m up-bowing and down-bowing at the same time. Ohhhh! Thaaaat’s where John Williams borrowed that Star Wars bit from. How can anyone possibly dance to this? Say, am I going to get out of here in time to make my matinee at the ballet across the Lincoln Center Plaza? When am I ever going to get my lunch? Bread Soul Café once again.
Big, big, big 11/4 measure coming up: Awesome timpani/bass drum power! Reminds me how we hated that conductor so much in college. The orchestra conspired behind his back to play TWELVE hits, not eleven. I don’t think he ever figured it out. Ouch, did I just play only TEN quarter hits this time? Karma. Stravinsky bites again?
Mystic Circles of the Violin Scroll
Oh, that orchestra in college sure was an excellent-looking band. Can’t forget that. I’ve seen some darn unattractive choruses in my time. You know what I’m talking about. Speaking of movies, did you see “Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky,” that fictional-historical drama wherein Stravinsky gets naked, and looks as handsome and muscular as a matinee-idol? I swear I am not making this up! Anyway, during large sections of the movie, he is shown working at the piano (sometimes naked) on a revision of “The Rite.” The musical temperament of the movie is very well done. Made me realize how pianistic this piece actually is.
The Sacrifice of the Bow Hair
Wow! What an amazing, brutal sound. 5/8, 7/8, 5/8, 6/8. Still so fresh after 100 years. Gotta dig in harder and hit Greg Wylie for a re-hair tomorrow. These beat patterns are actually starting to make sense and feel natural. What would Bach think about this if he were alive today? Would his head explode? Even faster now, 5/16, 2/16, 3/16, 2/8; what a groove! Yeah, baby! Human sacrifice? Those zany Russian pagans! Last page now, 3/16, 3/16, 3/16, 2/16, 5/16, 3/4, DEAD STOP! Pause, just a hair longer, listen to the flutes go way up high…wait for it…watch for Gergiev’s final downbeat, here it comes…BOOM!!!
Ron Wasserman is the principal bassist of the New York City Ballet.
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When Music Could Cause Riots
by Tom Olcott
This month is the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which took place in 1913 in Paris. The reports of that initial performance are part of music lore and we now ask, with some incredulity: did people really riot on the street after the “Rite of Spring?” Was the event really a cause célèbre in wider Parisian society? Did it matter much? Apparently…it did! (Does a ballet, symphony, or opera matter so much today?)
But 1913 was the year immediately prior to World War I, perhaps the most stupidly wasteful war of all. (The comparatives here are not much better: few wars justify their costs.) And yet, despite the nearly sociopathic destruction of those war years, the art created just prior and just beyond the world’s physical and psychological destruction has persevered in spectacular form. The artists from that period – Stravinsky, Picasso and James Joyce, to name just a few – created radical and transformational works. These artists and others still project huge influences today.
Dancers from the original 1913 production of “Rite of Spring”
The New York Times’ report on the premier
I relate that very brief and inadequate cultural history only to say that any symphonic musician who sees the “Rite” on their performance schedule takes a deep breath and understands that their schedule has changed. That 100-year-old piece always requires renewed attention. Why?
Well, no matter how many times you have played the piece, you need to ask yourself many questions, at least including the following:
Do you know the time signatures? Can you count them…and feel them?
Does your conductor know the time signatures?
If you’re a string player, can you play like a machine, and then instantly leap to lyricism?
If you’re a wind player, can you perform the delicate, soloistic, and rhythmically complex opening? And then can you play like a machine? And get lyrical again?
If you’re a brass player, can you play the notes – high notes, very loud, with no preparation – and can you then play every other note on your horn? Short and loud, long and sustained? If so, can you trust your conductor to know the difference?
And…hi there, percussionists! You all drive the boat. When you are on, everyone else is confident. But are you on?
Most of all, assuming all of those elements are more or less in place, the “Rite” is an intense on-stage experience. The rhythmic intensity and the sheer volume and profound presence of the full forces of a symphony orchestra make for an experience that is utterly overwhelming for a performer.
But the “Rite” was originally conceived as ballet. The huge forces are somewhat reduced for ballet pit performances due to space and numbers, and thus logistics. When done as ballet, a musician’s performing experience is, if anything, more intense. Why? Because the orchestra pit, and the ballet’s budget, can’t fit the entire “Rite” orchestra as conceived by Stravinsky.
So, for me, a few memories.
The very first time I performed the “Rite” was with the Yale Symphony Orchestra in the mid-1970s. Prior to the first rehearsal I went to the music library and learned, sort of, how to conduct it. That’s the only way I got through it.
I also remember a performance at the Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic in Scranton, when the resident maestro added a beat somewhere in Part 2, and, with some trepidation and instantaneous adjustment, our trombone section saved the day by somehow doing an instantaneous addition and subtraction of observable beats and therefore got everyone on track. (Afterward, the maestro said to us, “Thanks, gentlemen! But you did not follow!” Go figure.)
More memorably, more than 20 years ago, I performed a re-orchestrated version by Robert Rudolf with the Joffrey Ballet, when the company still had a New York presence. At the Joffrey, we performed a program consisting of Satie’s “Parade” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” and “Rite of Spring.” Twice a day on some weekends…with an orchestra of 47! We were inspired by that music. We soldiered on in joy and wowed the audience. We were proud and inspired to create that music. We worked very, very hard. Oh, and, due to our union contracts, we were well paid.
Once, a conductor actually apologized for making a mistake and leading us all astray for a moment. We got him back on track. We all knew the piece!
I remember how the Westchester Philharmonic under Paul Dunkel nailed a performance of the “Rite” in performance after only three rehearsals. New York musicians are the best!
The American Ballet Theatre retains the “Rite” in its repertoire, although it has been at least 10 years since a performance. Let’s all hope that production can return to the stage.
The “Rite” remains always an event and a challenge to performers and to audiences alike. The experience of playing it defines our art and our profession.
I ask now whether our ballet companies, our audiences, and our local orchestras have the will to support and re-create this piece, which amazingly remains the seminal piece of both our last century and the current century! That support requires vision and the funding to support the forces that make the “Rite of Spring” so memorable and transformative for all who experience it. I surely hope that vision endures, having received and shared that gift myself. Without that vision, we are all diminished.
Trombonist Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union’s concert department.
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Always a Surprising Ride
by Joe Alessi
The famous opening bassoon part from “The Rite of Spring”
The Rite of Spring” is a composition that never loses its freshness or its avant-garde edge. I don’t find it dated in the slightest, in spite of the fact that it was written 100 years ago. My point of view is corroborated by modern audiences’ reactions to the piece as well; you can see on their faces that for some it is just as unnerving and cacophonous as it was on first hearing long ago in Paris. I have a lot of personal connections to this piece, maybe more than just about any other symphonic work I have performed.
My first “Rite of Spring” experience was a concert I did with the Santa Rosa Symphony in California when I was 15 years old, for which I played the bass trumpet part. Coreck Brown was the conductor, and I found myself terrified just to count it. After the first rehearsal I went back home to listen over and over to a recording of the piece and decided that I needed to feel the rhythms, above all else, especially in the “Danse Sacrale.” Counting it did not work nearly as well as just getting the rhythms in my ears and body.
Next was a performance at the Curtis Institute where I again played bass trumpet, this time with Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting. That was a far more enjoyable concert because I felt I was genuinely getting the rhythms and felt more at ease on the bass trumpet too. I could step away from my playing long enough to appreciate the piece itself. Now it became terrifying for the right reasons – its relentless rhythms and sheer animalism.
Numerous performances followed, many of them good experiences. My personal relationship with the “Rite” started to evolve further when my son Joseph decided that he needed to be born during a snowstorm on the first night of a “Rite of Spring” series at the Philharmonic in February 1988. In the afternoon, when it was clear I had the choice of either missing my son’s arrival or playing the “Rite,” we got hold of my great teacher and colleague Glenn Dodson from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who happened to have the evening off. He zipped up the Jersey Turnpike through the snow in his Porsche 911, and just managed to make it in time to play for me on the 2 p.m. matinee.